USA 2001 : Iain Softley : 120 mins

Would-be cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Contact sees inmates of a New York mental ward helped by a mysterious patient known only as ‘Prot’ (Kevin Spacey), who claims to have travelled from the distant planet K-PAX on a beam of light. Chief psychiatrist Dr Powell (Jeff Bridges) is understandably skeptical about Prot’s claims to be an alien, but then it turns out the sunglasses-wearing stranger is immune to conventional pharmaceutical treatment, able to see ultra-violet light, and in possession of an intimate knowledge of far-flung galaxies. As Powell investigates further, however, a more earthbound explanation seems to emerge.

Contact worked because it made sense both ways – it was up to the audience to decide whether there really were aliens beaming signals to Earth, and whether or not Jodie Foster’s character really did end up visiting them. It’s a tricky balancing act, and K-PAX‘s approach is much more ham-fisted: the evidence for Prot’s other-worldliness seems pretty conclusive, but then the see-saw swings too far the other way.

Powell’s strenuous detective work relies on all kinds of unlikely melodramatic contrivances and coincidences, and the story he digs up is alarmingly reminiscent of the recent Jennifer Lopez stinker Angel Eyes, with its ordinary Joe going into shock-trauma after a family tragedy, taking refuge by adopting an new idiot-savant/saint/bum persona. Working from a novel by Gene Brewer, scriptwriter Charles Leavitt gets back on an even keel for a finale which strikes a suitably ambiguous note about Prot’s origins and fate – although, like Contact, it does so by having a video-monitor screen go conveniently wonky at a crucial stage.

K-PAX doesn’t do much with the intriguing basic premise, but it remains watchable whenever Spacey is on-screen – in contrast with his last outing in The Shipping News, this doesn’t feel too much like a role being played with one eye on the Oscars, and the actor clearly gets a kick out of what is, admittedly, a showcase role. The price is paid by his co-stars: Alfre Woodard is scandalously underused as Powell’s superior, and while Bridges at least has a role to play, it’s essentially reactive and the film misses a major opportunity by never allowing Powell to engage Prot in serious debate. As Prot himself points out, Powell is pretty inarticulate for such a supposedly smart guy, and while he does have a couple of rudimentary domestic problems, these are purely a mechanism so that Prot can help solve them and set up a sentimental, upbeat fade-out.

By this stage, however, it’s hard to care one way or the other, thanks to Softley’s earthbound clich-ridden direction (rushing clouds!), Edward Shearmur’s gloopily sentimental score and, worst of all, the limitations of Charles Leavitt’s screenplay, based on a novel by Gene Brewer. The dialogue and characterisations are often distractingly clunky, with the mental patients an especially tiresome collection of over-familiar ‘asylum’ caricatures, allotted one trait each – it’s painful to see a firecracker of a character-actor live David Patrick Kelly (from The Warriors and Dreamscape) reduced to such a low level of wattage. This being an American movie, it’s taken as read that conventional remedies are useless – though Prot’s rival methods are psychiatrically nave, to say the least.

5th April, 2002
(seen 4th April, UCI Metro Centre, Gateshead)

by Neil Young
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